Air pollution has grave consequences — the World Health Organization estimates it kills 7 million people a year. Indeed, recent research suggests closer to 9 million people died from exposure to air pollution caused by burning fossil fuel each year from 2012 to 2018. The economic impacts on health and productivity from exposure to air pollution add up to trillions of dollars. On top of that is the profound, existential threat of climate change.
These consequences are not evenly distributed. In the United States, Black Americans are three times more likely to die from air pollution. In California, about 44 percent of Latinos live with poor air quality, compared to 25 percent of non-Latinos. Climate change impacts including extreme heat and flooding also disproportionately affect people of color.
It’s U.S. Climate Action Week, and statistics such as these underscore the lived experiences of millions of people, and the urgent need for immediate, collective action.
Governments are mobilizing to address equity and the environment
Thanks to the groundbreaking work of environmental justice leaders across the country, governments are taking bold climate action that addresses these disproportionate impacts. New legislation in states such as California, New York and New Jersey is focused on addressing environmental injustices through data-driven planning and targeted interventions.
And now, the Biden administration has set the goal that 40 percent of federal climate investments benefit disadvantaged communities. Justice40 is an opportunity to systemically address environmental justice and unlock a new wave of economy-growing innovation in historically underinvested communities across the nation.
Businesses can be growth engines for economic and climate justice
With all levels of government mobilizing to invest in environmental justice, it’s time for the private sector to step up, too. Businesses play a critical role in addressing the converging crises of climate change, public health and widening economic disparities.
It’s not just about reducing or even reversing individual corporate carbon footprints. It’s about redesigning the way we do business to solve for public good and economic growth at the same time. Products and services should be designed for and with communities. Business models can serve shareholders and stakeholders simultaneously.
Too much of the technological innovation in recent decades has been designed in a Silicon Valley bubble and centered on convenience, comfort and status.
Already, environmental and climate justice entrepreneurs are paving the way. For example:
- Donnel Baird, founder of BlocPower, partners with governments, utilities, building owners and community members to generate energy bill savings and reduced carbon emissions. BlocPower’s smart buildings platform markets, engineers and finances renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies to buildings in underserved market segments, generating financial returns, reducing emissions and improving public health.
- Elango Thevar, founder and CEO of NEER.ai, is bringing a next-generation intelligent platform for water infrastructure to smaller communities to ensure access to clean water for all.
- Dana Clare Redden, founder and CEO of Solar Stewards, is building a more inclusive clean energy economy through on-site solar development with community organizations such as affordable housing, schools and nonprofits.
A common thread for each company is that they are designing solutions for and with communities underserved by the technology industry.
Building climate solutions and economic growth for and with communities
Environmental justice organizations have been tapping into their own ingenuity to create innovative climate solutions for decades. Yet, the technology industry has, by and large, ignored the incredible opportunity to partner with them to innovate scalable solutions that serve climate and economic justice at the same time.
Too much of the technological innovation in recent decades has been designed in a Silicon Valley bubble and centered on convenience, comfort and status. But incredible advancements such as cloud computing, broadband mobile connectivity, machine learning and advanced sensing technology also have been combined to treat disease, fight wildfires, grow drought-tolerant crops and support data-driven climate action. We’ve barely scratched the surface of technology’s potential to serve people and the planet. At this defining moment, it’s time to expand the innovation economy to all communities.
By building community-centric innovation through direct partnership with and employment of people affected by environmental injustice, companies can prime their products and services to catalyze local climate action and economic growth at the same time.
For example, Aclima designed its environmental intelligence platform with and for communities to help target investments in community-led emissions reductions. And our company’s sensor network is operated by full-time employees with benefits hired from the communities it serves. To further deepen the company’s alignment and collaboration with climate and environmental justice leaders, Aclima recently expanded the Aclima Advisory Board to ensure the science and technology it develops is continuously attuned to the needs of the communities and customers it serves.
Climate entrepreneurs and the technology industry as a whole constantly must evolve their approaches and iterate their solutions based on feedback from trusted relationships with community partners and stakeholders. We can go further by designing business models to support public good and drive economic opportunity for people who have been left out of the innovation economy that has created unprecedented levels of wealth. Communities affected by environmental injustice have been ignored for far too long, but they have the power to propel all of us forward.
It’s time for the private sector to transform into a growth engine for both economic and climate justice. To ensure equal access to self-determination and to economic opportunity, we must secure everyone’s right to a healthy environment.